Starting a new theme here: Garden Beneficials.
I would say “beneficial insects” but so many organisms that keep us alive and healthy are from other orders. You’ll see as we get further into this!
Here are this week’s guests of honor
These two tiny millipedes are front-line shredders, so you find them in leaf litter. They chew up organic matter (old stems, fruit, leaves and such) so that other organisms can get to work on turning cellulose-heavy plant parts into loamy soil. Other chewing organisms enlarge their tiny holes, and fungi and algae have an easier way in to join the decomposition fest.
You might at first think they’re earthworm, but close up their many tiny legs are moving incessantly as they try to find a dark spot to hide. These young ones above rolled up when I disturbed them – their bodies will acquire harder shells later after several molts, but rolling into a ball gives them extra protection. They can also exude noxious substances to deter predators.
According to Life in the Soil, (James B. Nardi), “Millipedes take a year or more to mature and may live for several years”. He also notes that fox sparrows are one of the few birds that can down a millipede without getting sick from the chemical defenses it secretes.
Later on, these guys will develop more color and harder shells. They don’t move too fast, but they can roam around in cracks and crevices looking for dead material, fungi and algae to eat. So when you see them at work – remember – they are not eating your live plants or roots! They’re just the recyclers. Thank them for the nice soil you enjoy.